The Real Alignment Challenge

It has, yet again, been a while since my last post – this partly because of both work and personal pressures – I have been helping Diane run one of the largest juried art shows in our province, but also because I haven’t seen anything that caused me to “lift up my pen”. A number of articles and posts that I have seen over the last few days have now pushed me to do so.

Yesterday, I read an interview with my old colleague, Don Tapscott, by Shane Schick in Computerworld Canada  in which he discusses yet another new book, his follow on to Wikinomics –  Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (which Tapscott wrote with collaborator Anthony D. Williams). The book is based on the idea of mass collaboration both within companies and between them, with their partners, customers and other stakeholders. Since his first book, Paradigm Shift (which he co-authored with Art Caston), Don has been a visionary in the IT space – he has helped many individuals and organizations, including myself, to have a broader understanding of what could be. Whilst I would also like to think that I am somewhat of a visionary, I am primarily interested in what it takes to turn vision into reality – a reality where the potential of IT turns into realized value. Unfortunately, the gap between vision and reality (and, by inference, concept and implementation) continues to be large, and, as another former colleague of mine, Michael Anderson, once said (or, possibly, quoted), vision without action is hallucination.

This leads me to the second article by Chris Kanaracus in Computerworld – ERP woes blamed for lumber company’s bad quarter . On first seeing this, I thought here’s yet another ERP failure story to file away which, to some extent it is in that, as the article says “Lumber Liquidators is attributing a weak third quarter to a complex SAP implementation, saying the project imposed a significant drain on worker productivity.”  The article goes on to say that  “…lower productivity led to an estimated $12 million and $14 million in unrealized net sales, according to the company. Net income fell nearly 45% to $4.3 million.” Lumber Liquidators’ CEO Jeffrey Griffiths, in saying that “There were a few things that didn’t work quite right, a few things that were unique to our business that we didn’t see as well ahead of time…” , attributed the problems in the quarter to employees’ having difficulty adjusting to the SAP software, which he nonetheless praised. The article concludes by saying that “The situation differs from other troubled SAP projects, such as one conducted by Waste Management that led to a bitter lawsuit, which was ultimately settled.” It may differ in that it did not result in a lawsuit, and the SAP system is still running, but it certainly does not differ in that the significant loss of income, and the resulting drop in share value of 14%, was due to a problem that could and should have been anticipated and headed off – this did not have to happen! The problem here usually comes down to focusing too much on the technology – not the change that technology shapes, enables and require, not applying due diligence at the front-end – to understand the scope and breadth of the change, and not effectively and pro-actively managing the change. In Lumber Liquidator’s case, this view would appear to be supported by today’s ZDNet Article by Michael Krigsman – Understanding Lumber Liquidators’ ERP failure.

The next article, Business as Organism, Mechanism, or Ecosystem by Bob Lewis in CIO provides some useful insights into the nature and behaviour of organizations today. Introducing the article, he asks “Do you envision your organization as an organism, mechanism, or ecosystem?”

In the case of an ecosystem, he suggests that “The enterprise is organized, if that isn’t too strong a word [such that] employees at all levels interact to further their own self-interest. Furthering the interests of the enterprise is an accidental byproduct at best. More usually it isn’t a byproduct at all. The enterprise is left to look out for itself. And so, organizational ecosystems devolve to silos within silos within silos. It’s no way to run a railroad. Or any other organization, from an enterprise down to the smallest workgroup.”

He then goes on to say that, as a result of this proliferation of silos, “Many business executives choose to view their organizations as mechanisms instead — collections of gears, cams, cogs, levers and buttons, connected so as to achieve a coherent result. It’s business-as-automobile and business-leader-as-driver. It’s the view preferred by process consultants of all religious persuasions … lean, six sigma, lean six sigma, theory of constraints and whole-hog process re-engineering for the enterprise as a whole; ITIL for IT, and other process frameworks (I imagine) for other business disciplines. All start by describing an organization as a collection of processes and sub-processes that feed each other’s inputs and use each other’s outputs to achieve the organization’s purpose… the purpose of the executive in charge … the CEO for the enterprise as a whole and the other C-level executives…Business-as-mechanism is far superior to business-as-ecosystem because mechanisms, whether they’re automobiles, power tools or computers, can and do achieve the purposes for which they’re designed, so long as they’re operated by people who (a) have the appropriate skills to use the mechanism; (b) know what they’re trying to accomplish with it; and (c) have chosen to try to accomplish something for which the mechanism is suitable.” Relating back to the SAP challenge described above,  it is this last statement that contains the root of the problem.  Many executives choose to implement ERP solutions, such as SAP, as a way to address the silo problem. However, if insufficient effort is put in up front as part of the change management process to ensure that managers and employees think beyond their individual silos, have a clear and shared understanding of the purpose of the change that they are being asked to make, and how their roles and responsibilities will change across the silos, and if they are not trained such that they have the appropriate skills to operate in the changed environment, the result will be, at best, disruptive, and, at worst, highly visible outright failure.

Bob then goes on to contrast the above with organizations that operate as organisms, saying that “Unlike mechanisms, the organism’s purpose belongs to every part of it. That’s what lets it adapt to changing circumstances. Feet build callouses, muscles harden and bulk up, skin tans when exposed to more sunlight — each part supplies its own energy and figures out the details of its operation on its own without subverting the overall purpose of the critter it’s part of. Organizations that are organisms are rare because leaders willing to invest the effort to build them, and to forgo the gratification of being the sole driver, are rare. While evidence is sparse … Business Management theory hasn’t yet reached even the level of reliability associated with Economics … what evidence we have suggests organizations that operate as organisms are the most successful in both the short and long run.”

The above caused me to again reflect on Joel Kurtzman’s book, Common Purpose, which I referenced in an earlier post The Traveller Returns, in which Joel provides a very insightful critique of today’s leaders. (As I threatened in the previous post, I will review this book in greater detail shortly). What I took away from Bob’s article, and what I see in my everyday work across the globe is a serious mis-alignment between enterprises whose leaders have an ecosystem mindset, but  adopt mechanistic solutions to change what are becoming increasingly complex organisms – this is the real alignment problem! If we are to solve this problem, if enterprises are to survive and thrive, we need to get away from what I have described in previous posts as the cult of leadership. As Joel says in his book, leaders need to move beyond the traditional “command and control” model to establishing a  ”common purpose” and creating a “feeling of ‘we’ among the members of their group, team or organization”. This will require leaders who can “park”, or at least manage their egos, break down silos, and really engage with and empower all employees – fostering leadership across and at all levels in the organization. Only then will the full potential value of IT-enabled change be realized!

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